Honesty is a virtue that George Monbiot does not possess

Reason, purpose, self-esteem, independence, productivity, justice, integrity and honesty are the key virtues of the objectivist system. They are the primary secondary and tertiary corolaries of Rand’s metaphysical observation that what is real is objectively real, regardless of your opinion. That existence exists, and we aren’t making it up. In contrast, George Monbiot’s mendacious and emotional attack on this system has little relation it’s actual construction. Apart from some name calling, Monbiot begins by claiming:

Selfishness, it contends, is good, altruism evil, empathy and compassion are irrational and destructive.

Apart from the pages of samey critiques produced by countless critics, nothing in Objectivism calls empathy and compassion evil. Empathy and compassion are tools for determing the state of mind of another person and determining a course of action for yourself. Objectivsm has little to say about this except for it’s built-in mandate to always properly weigh all the relevant facts, and to treat others justly – that is – to treat them as they deserve to be treated. It is as if Monbiot read the first few lines of a high level summary and instead of actually reading the end of it, projected his own preconceptions onto it’s topic. In doing so, Monbiot perpetuates the constant confusion of enlightened self-interest and endarkened behaviour that is short termist, cowardly and self destructive. Rand called this a “package deal” and invited us to unpack the common and entirely healthy requirement for individuals to tend to their own physical and spiritual health and the common, unwelcome and counterproductive error of doing so by lying, cheating and doing injustice to others.

An injustice is exactly what he commits when he lays the blame for the mistakes of a central banker – an office of state – on a philosophy that advocates the complete separation of state and economy. While Rand goes to some lengths to defend business people, and cleverly shows how they enable their own victimisation, she never advocated that Government should grant them favours. Nor as, Tim Warstall points out, did Alan Greenspan even have the authority to authorise the tax and regulatory measures that Monbiot lambasts. He goes on to mention an Adam Curtis documentary that, in fact, described exactly the fateful government interventions Greenspan did instigate. These macroeconomic interventions obviously would not have met with Rand’s approval, yet Monbiot snearingly calls Alan Greenspan’s public rejection of Rand the “official version”. What is most alarming is that both Monbiot and Curtis failed to see the blatant contradiction of criticising the actions of a government offical, and the destructive consequences for the economy, as being somehow inspired by an “evil” advocate who wanted to leave the economy alone.

© Dan Eckert

The screed continues with an analysis of Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, a book that revolves around the transcontinental railway system of a dystopian America:

The poor die like flies as a result of government programmes and their own sloth and fecklessness. Those who try to help them are gassed. In a notorious passage, she argues that all the passengers in a train filled with poisoned fumes deserved their fate. One, for instance, was a teacher who taught children to be team players; one was a mother married to a civil servant, who cared for her children; one was a housewife “who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing”.

Rand hardly argues that they deserved to be gassed. To be clear, as Monbiot fails to be clear, this was an accident caused by the perverted incentives of the, by now, entirely communist economy. An economy and a culture near to end of self-destruction at the hands of incorrect philiosophical ideas, such as those Monbiot advocates in real life today. Monbiot does not address whether or not terrible accidents would be caused by a communist culture, prefering to mischaracterise the text and Rand’s intent. In fact Rand is attempting to show, not they “deserved” their fate, but they are all “responsible” for it:

It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there are those who would have said that the passengers aboard the [train] were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.

It is in this context that Rand portrayed a woman who took perfect care of her children’s physical needs while approving implicitly of the job her “civil servant” (Monbiot) husband had “enforcing directives… saying “I don’t care it’s only the rich that they hurt” (Rand). She is saying that actually the directives enforced by the woman’s husband were responsible for creating the set of circumstances that killed his children and that perhaps his wife should have been more interested in what he was doing.

As to the housewife, the full quote, which I assume Monbiot cuts for brevity is “who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge”. Did I mention, that this ill fated train had been ordered into a gas filled tunnel by a politician who refused to listen to the safety concerns of the conductor? Had the housewife voted differently, we are invited to ask, would she still be alive? Maybe.

Another detail left out, which Guardian readers would be interested to know, is that the teacher he mentions had in fact taught her pupils “that they must not assert their own personalities, but must do as others were doing”. Does this really sound like the kind of teacher that Guardian readers would root for in a novel? Oh and did I mention that it was one of these automatons of social cohesion, driven to apathy by the changing times, that permited the train into the tunnel rather than being a rebel and saving thousands of lives? That character knew he would hate his job from that moment, but obeyed orders like all the others had done.

All of the passengers were shown as contributing in their own way to the fate they met. The point, if it needs to be clarified further, is that philosophy is important even if it is not consciously held or especially treasured by the people who act upon it’s content. Good ideas, Rand is arguing, make for a better world.

But Monbiot’s superficial understanding of Atlas Shrugged is as comical as it is dishonest. The book barely mentions the rescue of the economy and in fact it ends with the final destruction of the industrial economy and the rescue, in fact, of the son of a mechanic and spartan intellectual John Galt. Monbiot chooses to describe this rescued hero as a plutocrat. Plutocracy is the rule of wealth. In fact Galt had finally got himself into serious peril by refusing the role of economic dictator, an episide that could not possibly have been missed, even by readers who skipped his long speech. Perhaps Monbiot is relying upon a summary afterall.

7 Comments

  1. Monbiot has been dishonest in many ways with his article.

    Rand in various writings and interviews embraced the term benevolence rather than altruism. Bear in mind she is not a native English speaker or writer, she took the word altruism from its true root – “for the other”.

    Objectivists believe that benevolence is an authentic human quality, whereby people value their loved ones, their friends and will be naturally kind and generous to other human being by choice, and because they see virtue and value in them. It isn’t a dystopian thoughtlessness, as much as Monbiot wishes it was.

    Altruism she defined as living for the other. Sacrificing oneself for others, but most specifically sacrificing ones own values for others. It is NOT altruism to dive into a river to save your wife or children, because they are critical values to you – they mean something to your life, because you could not stand to lose them, you are willing to risk your life for them. However, it is altruism to put your own life or the life of others you value beneath that of those who you do not.

    She saw the culture of statism, socialism, fascism and indeed all of the major religions as preaching self sacrifice, surrender to the greater good, so that it allowed people to sit back and have the state take their business, take their property, their time, their jobs, regulate them, tax them, and even send them to prison for a “greater good”.

    For Rand, the greatest good was the life of the human individual, and the only role of the state was to protect it from force and fraud.

    Finally, it IS laughable than the Adam Curtis documentary is quoted as somehow meaning Alan Greenspan applied objectivism when he had a job that was the anathema of objectivism – leading a government owned central banking monopoly that issued fiat money.

    Ludicrous, but it does show something. When the left fears objectivism, derides it and smears it, it shows it has philosophical foundations that make it quiver. The notion that people might own their lives, that capitalism is the “unknown ideal” in Rand’s words and that the state should only exist to protect individual rights, not be engaged in social engineering.

    I don’t think Atlas Shrugged was well written, and in fact I had been an objectivist for a few years before reading it – and I skipped through much because I knew what was going to happen. However, objectivism DOES give a solid moral philosophical foundation for libertarians and capitalists.

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  2. In my experience, the real problem for such leftists is that what they hear about Rand is filtered through those who decide that she is some champion of Aryan, Nietsche-worshipping types. And because she set out to be provocative (with book titles such as “The Virtue of Selfishness”) this antagonised a lot of them.

    Even so, I have come across even leftist folk who admire Rand’s broader sense of life and celebration of individual achievement. And her impact on young people has been, and remains, immense. Which of course is a big threat to the left and the reactionary right. In fact, the two sides of the spectrum have more in common in how and why they fear Rand, and libertarian thought, than they would ever care to admit.

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